IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Monday, November 30, 2708, continued
Twilight again, though it’s hard to say how much dimness comes from the setting sun and how much from the ever-thickening clouds above. The guerilla’s hour approaches, the hour of dark and confusion, when scrambling men stumble over their equipment, when fires burn most bright against the night.
I can feel the threat of rain in the air, the way it just begins to start, the first scouting particles of drops. “Misting”, they call it, but it doesn’t feel misty to me, more like a sparkling coldness on the skin, harsh and bracing.
My head feels light; I haven’t eaten for a couple days, come to think of it, and that last sandwich before then didn’t give me much. Aromas of a military dinner in the making waft to where we hide—pity we didn’t come here to loot.
I whisper to Tanjin, “Save a molotov for the cafeteria—we can hit a lot at once that way.”
“Isn’t Kiril working there?”
“What’s a rebel’s work, if not to die for the cause?” My damnation slices right through me, hard as the steel that sheared Fatima in half, cutting me off from all emotion. Maybe I’ve already died for the cause. And maybe I’m okay with that.
(I wash my hands for the evening’s work, then hurry out the dorm-room, wiping my cold hands on my skirt. I’m running late; the other cooks must’ve already started long before. But after I came crying to Sarge about the “incident,” he made me eat the last of the cookies, every single one, sitting in his lap while he held me close and caressed my hair, and he didn’t know that I wept against his chest for Reno, who would’ve protected me from so much “love.”
It’s just been too much, one final thing too much, and I’m tired of being the tough one, the smart one, the only one in this whole damn outfit who sees things clear. I think I’ve slept most of the day away since. Vaguely I remember Sarge waking me for a lunch I didn’t fix, and maybe a couple hours later for desserts—I don’t know, it all blurs together; I’m not used to those cookies anymore. Every time I woke I wept, to think of staying at my post without Reno here—I won’t get to relax ever. Napping in a drug-forced stupor doesn’t count.)
“By the way, Deirdre,” Tanjin says a little too casually. “Did you get any sleep during the day?”
“Sure,” I lie. Too many thoughts rattled through me like dice to let me sleep, turning this way and that, different facets showing all the changes of fortune from varying decisions. Like they do right now. “You know, Tanjin, maybe we should hit the magazine instead. Yeah, that’s the ticket, deprive them of their arms in one great burst!”
Tanjin grins. “I like it,” he says.
My thoughts keep on tumbling. “So let’s scope out where they keep their ordinance. In fact, let’s recon the whole school, just to see what else might come up.”
So we tiptoe between empty tanks like sleeping monsters, then dash to a walkway between rows of classrooms. We hear boots—we dive into a weedy space between buildings so narrow that we can’t breathe from the belly as we watch the soldiers pass by, our hearts pounding loudly in our ears.
So many of them! It takes forever, and all the time I know that we’re in plain sight if anybody looked directly our way, if just one person peered between two walls in the dimming light. I try to pray, but the stones feel cold and hard against my back and front and heaven seems equally cold and hard overhead, impenetrable to prayers from creatures like myself, so I just sweat in the chill and try not to breathe too loudly.
At last they pass. Soldiers we have not yet studied or eroded—how exhilarating!
(Sarge waits for me just outside the kitchen’s back door. “I don’t want you working tonight, Kiril,” Sarge says as he leads me away from my post. “You’ve been through too much of a shock.”
I know my eyes feel hot and puffy from all that crying, but by now I don’t really feel a thing anymore. Not a thing. Except I still feel all rubbery from those funny cookies; I could take another nap right this minute. “Yes, Daddy Sarge.”
“First that terrible massacre, then you get attacked, and then that rotten, no-good space-case Reno just has to desert.” I...do...not...feel...a...thing. “You should never have befriended a man like that, Kiril.” Tears fall down someone else’s face; it can’t be mine. We stroll against the current of the marching men, in the general direction of the magazine.)
We drop like squirrels onto the roof of a row of classroom/barracks. “Remember, Tanjin, running across roofs makes a whole lot of noise in the rooms below. Pick empty quarters if you can.” Like these below us, not a light in any window, all the men out performing their last duties before their meal. My stomach growls. Don’t think “meal.” “Empty” is not a good word, either.
(Where in all this barely-orchestrated chaos will I find Genera Aliso? Not breaking stride as I scan for her, I half-sketch salutes back to the men who fear me, and glare at the ones out of uniform, who fear my mantle even more—as well they should. Look at all these camp followers! Every single troop seems to have acquired them—and how many of them owe allegiance to Cyran? The wind ruffles the thick purple wool around my shoulders, as though to remind me of the weight and warmth of my authority. That’s one of the first things we’ll have to change: getting rid of all this riffraff hanging off the army like a pack of fleas.)
At last we identify the magazine, where even now men load tank-rounds into the library, the books piled to one side outdoors to make room for blunter forms of instruction. The wind fingers through some of the pages fallen open in the heap, and the dampness in the air has already started to make the paper warp. Cold with fury, I reach my hand out for a molotov.
“Hold it,” Tanjin whispers. “If we wait till they start their supper, we can hit the cafeteria first, while everybody’s in there eating. If we hit the magazine first, the explosion will bring everybody running out, and we don’t want that. But we can hit the magazine right after”
“Good thinking.” He learns fast, I think with pride.
(“Not that way,” I say to Sarge, my legs gone stiff. Someone might recognize me there!
“Ah, that’s right—he was a munitions-guard.” We turn away from the magazine, back towards the cafeteria.) So we change directions for the cafeteria. (Sarge grumbles, “Some damned rebel was probably trying to rob us again, hitting him with that dart. Come on—I think I saw a playground over here.”
Behind the lunch-court I see all kinds of playthings—swings and slides and seesaws, whirligigs and a sandbox big enough to bury treasure in. Sarge pushes me on a swing, back and forth, back and forth. Maybe it’s the cookies, maybe it’s the swing, but I feel like I’m going somewhere, soaring way beyond all trouble, as weightless as an angel. I’ve never played like this before. It thrills me so much that I laugh, I actually laugh, though tears still spill down my face, but that’s all right, the breeze of the swing cools my swollen eyes. Does Deirdre feel this way every time she flies?)
I pull my flit from my backpack, unfold its crooked wood and wiring and strap it onto me. Tanjin gives me a queer look. “That’s what you, uh, fly with?”
“Yep.” For the first time I realize how primal my makeshift flit must look, the branches tied together by leather thongs wound up with silver wire to the silver-knotted rosy crystal bound into the center of the breast.
“Could I learn how?”
“Probably not.” He nods uneasily; I realize that I have inadvertently confirmed for him that I practice magic.
(The magic moment ends when Sarge catches me back in his arms and says, “Let’s go, Kiril—we’re already late for dinner.” As I set woozy feet to the ground I see the red-brown stains in the gravel. I look across and there’s more, right down the line, spattered under every swing. In fact, I stand right this minute in a great, dried pool of bloodstained grit. “But first let’s go to the mail-drop,” Sarge says, taking my hand like my father used to do. “My Mom’s sent another care package.” Dang! It dawns on me that we could have found out the movements of this troop just by recruiting her mailman, had we known. “I understand she got hold of some coconut fudge rolls—but don’t tell anyone. They came by way of Stovaki; you can’t find them here.”)
We watch the last stragglers go in for dinner. The cafeteria windows steam up with warm bodies, hot meals, and good cheer, as Tanjin and I shiver hungry outside and the night deepens around us. And then the latest leaf kicks in and burns my hunger away. Any minute now...
(This hour again! Right as the last light dies, and here I stand, separated once again from the main group while Sarge picks up his package. Not what I need when I already feel too weird.
“Kiril? You okay? I saw you shudder.”
“ Here, Kiril.” He opens his package and pulls out some candy.) We divvy up the Molotovs. (“If you promise not to let it spoil your appetite, you can have a little nibble now.”
“You know I always clean my plate.” Mmmm! So this is what coconut tastes like! Richer than a regular palm-nut and kind of sweet.
“Good girl. Listen, Kiril. Bad things happen, sure, but you know what? You worry too much.” He hands me another coconut roll “You should let us grown-ups worry about the scary things in life, all right?”
“All right, Daddy Sarge.” I smile up at him dreamily as though I believed his every word.) Tanjin and I split up. I’ll let the boy take the cafeteria; the magazine’s better bombed from a height.
Only a few latecomers now hurry across the dampened pavement towards their supper, afraid of retribution for their breech of protocol. I have to pick up speed, myself—Tanjin will throw as soon as the last of them enter the warmth and seeming-refuge for their evening meal.
(“Can I see Lufti?”
“What’d I tell you about worrying too much? We can see him after supper—now hurry! We’re late and I’m not the highest ranking officer around anymore, so we can’t get away with so much.”
It does look bright and cheery up ahead, so many windows all lit up, and that roast beef smells delicious!)
Okay, I’m in position, I’m ready, hovering in the air and hoping I’ve got enough blood-sugar left to keep me there. Tanjin should’ve reached the cafeteria by now. He must’ve. He’ll throw any minute now...
(I hear a whoosh in the air...
‘Sarge! Freeze! Don’t move!” I cry before I realize I’ve done it.
“You’ve got a poison dart stuck in the fold of your sleeve. One move and it pricks you. Here...easy...there!” And I blink at it. Why did I do that?
He examines the feathered thing in my hand, eyes wide. “Rebel’s work!” he spits like a swearword. Then he falls to his knees and grips my shoulders. “Oh Kiril—it could’ve hit you!”
“Come on, Sarge,” I say, “Don’t look for them now; you can report them inside.” I hope to buy whoever it was some time; I’ll think of some emergency to delay the reporting for as long as I can. But as we start for the cafeteria the light inside turns to a sun and the glass blows out towards us! Sarge throws himself on me and the shards hit his back, not me, as the explosion roars my hearing all away.)
That’s my signal. I soar above the shingled roof and dump my load like an insolent bird, then shoot into the sky on the updraft of the blast, spiraling with the sparks up towards the stars, and I don’t feel human, I don’t feel human at all. Explosion follows explosion in a satisfying chain reaction of light and power—boy am I glad we raided for munitions before “our” troop hit base!
(Kiril! Is she all right? Everybody in the infirmary yells at once; but it takes forever for the orderlies to tell us that terrorists hit the cafeteria. Then an even bigger explosion makes the ground buck under us.
I stumble out of my bed, fall on the floor, drag myself up against the pain, I shove myself out of the infirmary right into the faces of all the screaming men who roil from the burning building like damned souls writhing in their flames, a whole bunch of dancing stars, illuminated bright against the night.)
Kiril! Oh God, what have I done what have I done? What was I thinking? Where have I been these past days, I mean the real me? Who has masqueraded as Deirdre in the absence of my soul—and how could I blow up anyplace with Kiril in it? Oh God hate me! Don’t forgive me God, don’t ever forgive me, please!
Save Tanjin, at least. Look—there! Big men race after the boy, shooting, but he zigzags through a playground like a rabbit to make a bad target; bullets ricochet from the whirligig and ping from the monkey-bars. I swoop down from the skies with so much momentum that I jerk a swingset chain from its hook and I flail it around me, into their faces, smacking throats and breaking teeth and snapping guns from hands.
“Run, Tanjin—Run!” With the flit still on me I fight in all dimensions, running up their faces, kicking rifles aside to discharge in the dirt. I drop the chain on a man’s head while he snatches at my ankles, then zip after Tanjin, grabbing him by the armpits and dragging him skyward the best I can before our combined weight crashes us into the woods.
“Kiril’s okay,” he gasps. “I delayed her.” (Him, too. He held her hand just like a father. Got the dart right in the fold of fabric—perfect.)
(Kiril! Oh Kiril, oh Kiril, don’t make me try to live without you! I hold onto walls to keep my feet though it hurts, it hurts, but it can't hurt as much as Kiril dead.)
No time to feel anything. I grab Tanjin by his withered arm and run from that place, then skid in my tracks as I hear tanks grinding through the woods straight for our last location. I haul Tanjin up a tree and cower in a bough before dropping onto the backside of a tank with him and clinging for dear life to the wet metal. Oh ghosts my dear dead ghosts please let the dark conceal us, let our dingy rags fade into the browned metal pressed against us, hide us save our lives!
(Pain—every step shoots pain straight through me. But I have to find Kiril. I have to be a god just one more time—I have to save her life.)
As our mechanical beast roars through the forest in the hunt for our lives, I make signs in the palm of Tanjin’s hand for “Molotov” and “How many?” He signs back “Zero.”
(Camp-followers scatter through the ranks in blind civilian panic, tripping up the men at every turn—a disgrace! Wait—who is that boy? Haven’t I seen him somewhere before?)
Meanwhile tanks thunder all around us, crashing through trees with apparent intent to systematically mow down the whole thicket in search of us. As it dawns on us that we’re getting away with our free ride, we grin at each other’s soot-grimed faces and struggle not to laugh out loud.
(Yes, I’m sure I have. You don’t go far in a business like mine without an eye for faces.)
At least we grin until we feel the tank wheel ‘round and carry us right back to base! I look frantically to either side at all the flattened vegetation now girdling the entire perimeter. The all-revealing firelight comes perilously closer as I watch. Yes, there she is, General Aliso herself, directing the bucket brigade, while beside her, taking notes, stands a Purple Mantle...
...in an impeccable white shirt...
...and I know I felt him before I saw him, I’ve been feeling his presence all along. Of course. How else could I sink so low as to pitch a bomb at Kiril? Hatred leaps up in my heart as hot as fire fueled on cordite and gunpowder. Of course! It had to be his fault. All of it, in fact. This whole accursed war.
(Just then a roly-poly little camp-follower runs to embrace the boy. I must’ve seen the two of them following some other troop before. The rebel boy that I recall from Cumenci stood shorter, had a rounder face and fought beside a fury-eyed wraith of a girl—it can’t be the same pair, rare hair-color notwithstanding. This boy’s eyes have all the fury, here, while the little plumpling’s eyes look small and puffy and full of sleep.)
Don’t gawk—act! Right before we enter the light Tanjin and I drop straight into the tank itself. About a thousand hands grab and pommel me, men shouting fear and anger in my ears by the instruments’ green light, but I kick and gouge and bite with the best of them in that cramped can of war, grinding faces into metal, wrenching knives from hands and cutting more than I’ve been cut.
(Sarge stands over us, blood dripping down his back, puddling behind his feet. “Well, well!” he says. “It seems your brother can walk after all.)
“Over here!” Tanjin cries when a man pins him by his bad arm but I twist just in time to come between him and the knife and I break the wrist to get that knife, too, and prick the man deep, then shove him up out of the hatch so he can drop behind our dust and barely live to spread the fear.
Was he? Yes, he was the last—so let’s go! I shove a corpse from the driver’s seat. It looks plain enough: left lever rules the left tread, right lever rules the right. One trial—this pedal brakes, that must feed fuel. Okay, then! Let’s take this baby home.
(Or maybe...no, I doubt it. Street scum couldn’t gain so much weight that fast. I don’t think. Still, maybe I should keep an eye on those two. Soldiers have no business taking camp-followers in a guerrilla war. I’ve arrived none too soon, it seems.)
We rumble right into their base, one of many monsters at their beck and call, so they think. We can play it cool, pretend to be good soldiers, and slip out unnoticed with all the commotion elsewhere, or we could PLOW RIGHT THROUGH THIS OFFICE BUILDING, HERE! Glass shatters and wood flies as we invite ourselves in, grinding straight through cob as we shriek with laughter. Now we crush the desks beneath our treads, now Tanjin’s found the controls to swing the cannon, knocking files helter-skelter as I wipe tears of laughter from my eyes with my shoulders, never taking my hands off the levers.
“I bet that button in the middle fires it,” I say. He gives it a test, and the roar of the missile gives the whole tank a satisfying jolt. We howl with hilarity!
Now fire crackles through the paper and the wood as the light pulses orange through our slit of a window, so we crunch on through a hall half as wide as us and out into the open again right before the roof crashes down behind us, firing as we go on knots of soldiers while a legion of tanks come tearing over so I stomp down on the gas with the full weight of my body, zipping through the nicely-cleared perimeter while a blast rocks us silly, spending its fire on our impenetrable shell. Thanks, Aunt Soskia!
Another blast jolts us from the side; they aimed for our treads—smart move, but even in a cumbersome machine like this I can maneuver very, very slightly faster than they can. Now the other side rocks, but I can compensate, I’ve got control—except they’re herding me. I plow into forest and the blasts go high overhead now, but that’s no good, they’re deliberately shooting branches aimed to fall across my view, and they’re succeeding. It has to be General Aliso telling them what to do–it has that kind of female manipulation about it. More concussions direct our every move.
So where’s the cliff? There has to be a cliff, right?—Lord knows these mountains have enough to go around. It’s...wait, right here! I know because we now teeter on the brink, rocking back and forth dizzily; for some reason I think of merry times on a swingset in my youth, how I used to love this sensation. I can’t tell how much of the whiteness of Tanjin’s face comes from the dashboard’s greenish glow, but I can feel his nausea as my own. Still, we can...
Blast! Another explosion tips the balance and we tumble bruisingly about inside several tons of metal. My flit still chafes on me, but I already saw that I can’t fly far carrying Tanjin’s weight, not as hungry as I am and which way’s the hatch? We flail like in the barrel of a dryer, knees and elbows in each other’s guts and eyes and we don’t have time for this! Hold it, here, the hatch, got it, I grab Tanjin by the hair and then by the chin and then the armpits and I get us out but we still fall, I can’t break our momentum, but no, here, barely, no...
“Leaf!” I shout against the roaring wind as we turn upside down. “You got any?” Ohhhh no, here comes the tank right on top of us! I’ve got just enough strength to fly us out of its path before he says, “No!”
Oh wait—wait just one minute! I’ve got some left, in case we needed to—never mind that! “Left shirt pocket, Tanjin!” He puts it in my mouth, his sweet fingers on my lips—don’t think of that! Chew! Squeeze the last reserves from your body—quick! Up, soar up, higher and higher, as your mouth goes bitter-numb, carry your beloved Tanjin up and up and level out, swift away from the base, away from where the crashing tank rocks the ground for miles around, away, away, away!
And we laugh again, and I hold him tight, and he grips me back as fiercely as one and a half arms can muster, and all the heavens open wide for us, at least till I can find us someplace safe enough to crash, ourselves.